Who would have guessed that in his first three starts of the season, Charlie Morton would have a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings? Who would have guessed he would have a complete game one run outing on the road against the Cincinnati Reds, and a one run, six inning outing on the road against Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals? Based on his 7.57 ERA in 2010, and the outcry over the idea that he would be in the rotation again this season, I’d say very few, and maybe even no one at all, expected this outcome from Morton’s first three starts.
Now, who is ready to believe his first three starts are legit? Again, I’d say very few think that Morton is the real deal after half a month of the 2011 season.
It’s not like Morton shouldn’t be viewed under scrutiny. Heading in to this season he had a career 5.98 ERA in 251.1 innings. Even with the strong start, he leads the league in walks allowed, with 12 in 22 innings. To go with those walks, he has six strikeouts. There’s a good reason for that. He’s throwing his sinker ball, which is displaying a lot of movement, and leading to two results: pitches outside of the zone, and a lot of ground balls.
Morton has allowed 5.3 hits per nine innings. To put that in perspective, the league average last year was 8.8. The league leaders, Jonathan Sanchez and Felix Hernandez, were in the 6.6-7.0 range. Morton also has a .164 BABIP, when the average for starters is normally around .300. Simply put, the hits will eventually come with Morton. At that point, the free passes will start to hurt. The biggest concern is the lack of strikeouts, since Morton can’t continue to rely on his defense so much. The more he relies on his defense, the more likely he is of giving up additional hits.
But this isn’t so much about Morton. I doubt many think he is really this good, based on ten percent of the season, especially when you take a closer look, and factor in his history. The question is, if we’re not ready to crown Morton with the Cy Young award just yet, then why are people so quick to worry about Pedro Alvarez?
Alvarez is off to a bad start in his first full season, hitting for a .193/.258/.228 line in 57 at-bats. If we’re not going to say Morton’s start is legit, then why are we worried about Alvarez?
Looking at the situation a bit closer, you could make the argument that Alvarez is a slow starter. Last April he hit for a .224/.298/.424 line in April in Indianapolis. He followed that up with a .305/.404/.611 line in May, and a .328/.409/.603 line in June. It was the same story in 2009. He started off with a .219/.341/.397 line in April. He did better the following two months, with a .259/.342/.524 line, and really took off in Altoona after being promoted at the end of June.
It’s too early to say that Alvarez is a slow starter, but it wouldn’t be an uncommon problem. Ryan Howard is another example of a slow starter. In his career, the month of April is his slowest month, with a career .803 OPS (every other month is over .900), and a career .254 average (every other month is .259 or greater, and after May it’s .271 or greater). Mark Teixeira is traditionally a slow starter. In his career he’s got a .759 OPS in April, and no lower than .905 in any other month. He has a career .233 average in April, and no lower than .273 in any other month. And it’s not like Howard or Teixeira have gotten off to slow starts every year, but on average, April is usually their worst month.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing for Alvarez, as long as he doesn’t struggle this much every year, and as long as he limits his struggles to one month out of the year. However, the main question still remains. Why are people worried about Alvarez for his bad start, and at the same time, discounting Charlie Morton’s good start? There could be a number of reasons.
First of all, there’s the history factor. Morton’s history has been poor, which leaves little reason to trust his current start. Alvarez doesn’t have much of a history in the majors, so there’s nothing to base his start on, unlike Andrew McCutchen, who also started slow, but had one and a half seasons worth of impressive numbers.
I think the bigger issue is the importance to the team. Alvarez is one of the most important players on the Pirates, in terms of their chances of future success. If he doesn’t pan out, the future of the team takes a major blow, especially since Alvarez is one of few players in the system with the potential to hit for power. At the same time, Morton is also important, as the Pirates need pitching, although he’s currently seen more as a bonus, since no one was counting on this performance out of him.
In each case, it’s an example of how the glass is half empty in Pittsburgh. The Pirates need Alvarez to anchor the offense for years to come. For that reason, people worry that his start is just a sign of things to come, and that he won’t live up to his hype. At the same time, if Morton can continue to put up numbers anywhere remotely close to his first three starts, he would be a huge boost to the rotation. Since the Pirates need pitching, people worry that Morton isn’t the real deal, and won’t be able to boost the pitching staff.
The tendency is to think that anything bad that can happen to the Pirates, will happen to the Pirates. There’s good reason behind this thinking. The Pirates have had their fair share of bad luck over the years, with countless pitchers becoming one hit wonders, tons of top prospects never panning out, and some that struggle for years in Pittsburgh, only to have success after they leave. Giving credit to Alvarez’s bad start, and discounting Morton’s good start are just two examples of thinking the worst will happen in each case.
Now I’m in no way saying the opposite is true, that Alvarez will be fine, and that Morton is the real deal. As shown above, I think Morton will see a regression, and while it’s too early to be predicting career trends, I think Alvarez could be a slow starter. Ultimately we don’t know what will happen in either case. All we can do is analyze what has happened, why it may have happened, and what it could mean for the future. That sort of analysis is much better than a half full/half empty approach. It actually gives you a valid reason for your prediction, rather than just assuming the best/worst in all cases.